“Anxiety was born in the very same moment as mankind. And since we will never be able to master it, we will have to learn to live with it—just as we have learned to live with storms.” Paulo Coelho, Brazilian lyricist and novelist
We are like a puzzle made of diverse micro-personalities.
We are used to the idea that the Self is a solid and single unity. In reality, what we call a healthy personality is dynamic and fluid in nature. We behave in one way or another depending on the social context and conditions.
Feelings are constantly changing in response to our inner state of mind or outer conditions, and different feelings trigger different actions or non-action, different ways of being and avoiding. For example, music can change how we feel and behave; music can create a shift in our mood. Other times, a memory can trigger a shift in our mood and how we behave.
My behaviour and the state of my mood are not the same when I am relaxing on my patio as when I am working on a project, having lunch with my ex-significant other, or my parents or at my doctor’s office. When I am in a psychotherapist role, the capacities I use are not the same skills I use when I am attending a yoga class, caring for my sweet cat Alice, travelling or hiking with my friends. All these parts are somehow integrated and organized to allow us to move through these different parts or selves in a more or less flexible way in response to the inner or outer conditions.
James Fadiman, an American Psychologist and author, shares this example: “If you’re about to have the same argument you always have with your friend or partner…It’s not going to work. You can feel yourself rising into the self that wants to grapple confrontational, but if you know that that’s a real part of you, but you don’t have to give it away right now, you can shift into a kinder self. Your life will be a lot better.”
Acceptance makes life feel bigger.
“We can know the nature of dislike, shame, and embarrassment and not believe there’s something wrong with that. We can drop the fundamental hope that there is a better “me” who one day will emerge. We can’t just jump over ourselves as if we were not there. It’s better to take a straight look at all our hopes and fears. Then some kind of confidence in our basic sanity arises.” Pema Chodron, American Tibetan Buddhist Nun
Integrating the idea of having multiple selves in us makes it possible to work towards accepting each of our parts. Most of us have an anxious part that most generally resides inside the chest and wrapped around the ribcage. Though we want to heal and transform it, it’s important to accept our anxious part and learn its reasons for residing in our chest. Nobody likes feeling rejected, not heard or ostracized! Including the anxious part in us!
Some people believe that if you show curiosity about our anxious part, we accept it or let it reveal itself; you won’t improve or grow. They believe that making progress is to judge anxiety as something negative that we need to get rid of or suppress. However, it is quite the opposite!
The more we judge our anxious part, the more we would feel inadequate. As a result, our connection with life shrinks, while the anxious part turns its volume louder and louder, and then we are more likely to become increasingly fearful and constrained.
When we connect with the anxious part in us with an attitude of openness and curiosity and consider befriending it, we start to create more opportunities to liberate ourselves from its controlling and paralyzing tendencies. We can begin a process of negotiating with it: “Today, I have an important date. I know you want to protect me from feeling rejected. It’s all right; I think I can manage this. You can step off your usual role and relax. You can watch me go through it and chill if you want” Connecting with the anxiety in us before correcting it is a good first step for a long and lasting friendship.
When we deem the anxiety we experience as unacceptable, we begin to create the boundaries and edges of the world we are willing to inhabit. The world becomes so small that there is no room for playfulness, explorations, and ultimately living in a way that is meaningful to us.
Life purpose and self-confidence or positive thinking?
The popular media has created a false illusion that positive thinking and flooding our minds with positive self-esteem statements are good things for us. Part of the work to do is to recognize that we live in a culture that can be oppressive in its demands for perfection and positivity.
Self-esteem and positive thinking are not bad things; these are qualities that have their own merit in the larger scope of our personalities. However, when used to colonize and take over our inner being’s entire landscape, they can be counterproductive. One study shows that individuals with low self-esteem using positive statements such as “I am lovable and perfect” end feeling worse (Wood, Perunovic, and Lee 2009).
Allowing ourselves to recognize the parts in us that show self-compassion and self-forgiveness towards our shortcomings and imperfections is a more reasonable approach: “I am struggling today like so many people …” “I am doing the best I can under these difficult circumstances” “This … is really important to me. It makes sense I am feeling anxious right now” “I did the best I could given the conditions I was living in.”
How do we build self-confidence amidst feeling anxious? How can we soften the sharp edges of anxiety? One possibility is by being more in touch with our life purpose.
Having a sense of purpose adds meaning to our lives, and it also helps when things go wrong or when the anxious part in us triggers the alarms of avoidance, fears and worries and even shame.
Having a sense of purpose certainly allows us to put difficult events in perspective and refocus on the important and meaningful things to the people we love and us. “I am terrified of …. but this is an important step for the betterment of my family” “I am feeling very vulnerable right now, but sharing …. will help me and my partner feel closer.”
Exploring our life purpose involves looking deeply into what really matters to us. It calls for recognizing the qualities in us that we desire to cultivate, such as kindness, empathy, tolerance, discipline, loyalty, good judgment, being a patient listener, being reliable to myself and others, etc.
Working on living more intentionally and mindfully allows us to deepen the connection with most of the parts in us with a more caring and nurturing attitude. Even the anxiety in us wishes to make valuable contributions to others and the world; we need to learn to work with it rather than against it.
The anxious part in us needs our care and empathy. Most of the time, it wants to protect us by keeping us safe and away from failing, being hurt or sick, feeling embarrassed or rejected, etc. The narrative can shift: “I know a part of me is terrified and anxious, but doing this even when I worry … will help me feel more connected and closer to … -child, friend, spouse, job, nature, etc.”
Connecting with our life purpose and befriending the anxious part helps us feel more confident that we will progress psychologically and spiritually even though we may not know exactly how things will play out. Befriending the anxiety in us means relinquishing the need to control it and fight it. But rather trust that we will have the strengths and capacity to deal with how life perpetually continues to unfold in front of us in unpredictable ways.
A few tips to take home before you leave.
Spending time in contact with nature: whether you go out for a walk, look out through the window, look to pictures of nature on the screen or at a plant on your desk, it all adds to calming down your physiological system.
Social connections: loneliness can activate our anxious part. When connecting with a friend or significant other is not physically or virtually available, we can bring ourselves to meditate and think about the people we feel connected, trust, and care about. What is important is to feel connected with the world around us. Offering help and serving others is another way to develop a sense of belonging. Feeling connected to spirituality, your community, or the universe also promotes the release of oxytocin, which activates positive emotions.
Breathing: ah! Breathing is like an elixir for the body and mind! When we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, we feel more relaxed and calm, lowering our heart rate. Having longer exhalations promotes relaxation and sends soothing messages to the anxious part in us. Try inhaling at the count of 3 or 4 and exhaling at the count of 6 or 8. Even when you are walking, you can count your steps 1-2-3-4 as you breathe in and 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 as you breathe out. There are a few studies to prove this: Gerritsen & Band, 2018 and De Couck et al., 2019
“Just when the caterpillar thought the world was ending, she became a butterfly.” Barbara Haines Howett, American Author